Feb 28, 2022
20 mins read
I sat down with Sarah Sneesby to discuss her approach to the rehearsal process, her work in theatre, and her approach to a work-life balance. The coffee shop we are sitting in is playing some sort of power ballad in a language I can't quite make out, and it’s overcast, cold, and rainy outside.
“This is home base for me,” Sneesby comments.
Sneesby is a Seattle Native, Choreographer, Movement Director, and Mother to her one vocal and adorable kid. Her kid is with us in the coffee shop, and they chime into our conversation with vocalizations and expressions that professional performers strive for every day with hours of practice. Sneesby’s kid, however, is a natural, achieving these looks effortlessly. This kid is great, and this kid is one of the reasons why we’re here in this shop, talking about life, art, and finding the room in our lives for everything that’s important.
I was first made aware of Sarah’s existence when doing research for a dance project that- to this day- is still just a dream on the verge of becoming something real. She was giving me a few small pointers and tips for how to approach the work. Not long after that, I noticed a posting in Houston Theatre People, a Facebook group we were both a part of, that was announcing the auditions for her upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In it, she announced that on-site childcare would be provided for the cast and crew involved in the production.
“ I can also amend your individual stipend payment schedule to be more upfront if you prefer to hire babysitters in your own home,” she wrote, “Professional artists (who also happen to be parents) should not find that they can no longer perform because of the inability to arrange care!”
This stopped me in my tracks. This ceased my cyber scrolling. I read that again.
Professional artists who also happen to be parents should not find that they can no longer perform because of the inability to arrange care.
I don’t know about you, but since being in college in a theatre program, I was told by many professionals- some directly, some indirectly- that I would have to choose: My art, or my life.
This is a hard choice to make. How can I choose between art and life when they are so tightly intertwined? Furthermore, and even more painful, when I would choose life, I was made to feel that was the wrong answer. It’s like I was punished for wanting to experience life, the very thing that inspired me to make art. How could that be? This constant behavior towards me from my fellow peers grew into such frustration and sometimes resentment. I found myself rebelling, and in some cases self-sabotaging, all because I was burnt out, and when I said I was burnt out, there were people telling me that’s how it’s supposed to feel. I was- am- angry, because I knew they were wrong. Covid proved it.
During this last couple of years, everything we thought theatre was, is, and had to be has been challenged from the plays included in the canon, to the people running educational departments, to who is on stage, backstage, front of house, handling money, and how it all fits into life- or in my personal experience- how it all eclipses life. Here I was, astray, lost, and angry at an industry that didn’t take care of its own, that seemed to demand our lives for a little of bit of glory and even littler pay, and I had just encountered a woman who was taking one big step in the right direction. Sarah Sneesby was here, telling me I didn’t have to choose between theatre and life. I had to know more. I reached out.
So a couple of Facebook messages later, here I was, in the middle of an interview that rarely got interrupted, aside from the one time her kid decided to try to make friends with the potential friends outside. I asked her about this new choice, this fresh take of how to approach the rehearsal process, and how she came to the decision to put childcare into the budget. I have to say, everything Sarah said made a lot of sense.
“I think that’s one of the benefits of creating a theatre company and producing your own work is you get to decide where your money goes, and as I was looking at the budget and stipends…I realized that because of my husband’s job I either needed to make my stipend enough to pay for childcare for my own little, or I needed to rethink what theatre looks like in terms of what directors and what companies can give their actors.” When looking at the numbers, Sneesby realized that the answer was simple: provide childcare for all.
“It opens the door for other moms to step back into the performing world,” and upon speaking to Sneesby further, it became very obvious that this right here is a passionate subject. The disparity of mothers onstage is not reserved to the cast and crew, but also to the characters portrayed.
“It seems like there are a lot of roles and actors in their 20s and early 30s and then a lot of roles in their late 50s and there’s a decade lost,” Sneesby says of a conversation she had recently with a friend. This lost decade? The time when women become mothers.
“I think being a mother is a wonderful thing and I think taking time to raise children is wonderful, but I also think it's wonderful to be able to model for your kids what it means to chase a dream and to have hobbies and passions...You don’t have to stop everything you are to become a mom.”
I asked her why it was there weren’t very many plays about mothers. You don’t need a child on the stage to explore it all, so in my research, I wondered: everyone has a mom, so why didn’t we see them? We only see them when they are older, and mothers of sons, like in Death of a Salesman or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Or mothers who have lost a child, like Rabbit Hole, or mothers whose story ends just as they become mothers like Waitress? It’s not to say these stories are not good. They are, they are beautiful stories, but why do we miss the fascinating middle? Why do we almost always skip to the end or cut it off right at the beginning?
“I think there’s a couple of things: as playwrights, we write what we know, and until you have really truly and physically been there it's hard to adequately write it without adding tropes or stereotypes so I hope with the emergence of these brilliant female writers and producers and directors that are really starting to pop up and say that they have a voice or that they have a story to tell, that that will shift. That we will start to see these stories,” Sneesby answers, “I think the most important thing is for stories like that to be told or to have that demographic on stage, you as a theatre company or you as a producing company have to be willing to provide what’s needed for young parents, single parents, or even- like in my case- my husband travels a lot for work so I can’t pass the kid off to daddy when daddy gets home. That’s not a guarantee that he will be home on any given night or on any given week.”
Sneesby found that by reallocating the funds she was going to pay herself in order to pay for childcare, and making childcare a part of the budget, she could ensure that there would be someone onsite to take care of not only her child but anyone else’s child that might not have someone at home that could stay with their kid every night of rehearsal.
“We still have late-night rehearsals, there’s not much I can do about that, but at the very least, your kid’s right there, you’re not having to spend your entire actor’s stipend on childcare and then some…if you can’t afford to pay someone enough that they can pay $15 an hour for a babysitter the entire time, then you are asking parents to pay to play.”
In the acting world, if someone has you “pay to play” as Sneesby so succinctly put it, and they are not training you, it’s a scam. It’s like the unpaid internships of the world. Imagine if someone approached a lawyer and said “ I have this case, it’s a dynamite case, and I am the client. I usually would find a childless person to focus on this, but you are excellent and talented. I want you to represent me, but I will not pay you, I will pay your babysitter. Sound good?” If you consider the money spent on expenses, this lawyer, in the end, is paying to represent this client instead of the other way around. That lawyer, with good and beyond justifiable reason, would throw that individual out of their office.
This is the deal that parents who are performers are offered on a regular basis. Paying to do the thing that the company is supposed to be paying you to do is ridiculous. Ridiculous is my word, though Sneesby said “nonsensical”. She really does have impeccable word choice. It’s at that point, almost as a reaction to the conversation that Sneesby’s kid speaks up. She lets out a few grunts and squirms around a bit, flailing her hands here and there as if to say “nonsensical!” all of this, of course, is my imagination as she is more likely saying she is hungry, but the thought makes me laugh a bit as I ask Sarah about work-life balance. Almost with too good of timing, she mulls the question over while re-balancing her child on her knee. She says she’s been very lucky on that front.
“All the projects I’ve been a part of since becoming a mother, I have been able to make it part o my contract that my child comes with me. I’ll strap her to me,” she says, describing how she manages her classes and her movement direction or choreography while taking care of her kid. There have been many solutions she has developed with those willing to negotiate with her such as larger stipends to pay for an assistant director who assists with childcare as well as the show or bringing snacks and a mat for when she’s hungry or tired, having setups in the green room where her kid can sleep while rehearsals are wrapping up, and having breaks so that she can check in to make sure all is well. She usually, in the times when her kid is wide awake and attentive, straps her in and carries her with her in all of her directorial endeavors. In her latest endeavor, she and her assistant director “co-directed and co- took turns passing the baby around. It’s very much “it takes a village”, and I tend to think as a director and movement practitioner that theatre should be built collaboratively, not hierarchical tier.”
Her approach is more about the people in the room than the status quo, and I find that I love knowing that she is practicing what she preaches.
“You have a much more invested cast and a cast much more willing to step up and help out with things,” Sneesby says. She says directs with intentions at the forefront of the rehearsal process, not working with scripts in hand, but working from defining the intentions from moment to moment slowly developing the story from within the actors.
“Each actor chooses the intentions because they know the character better than I do.”
This is the moment where I thought to myself wow, what I wouldn’t give to work with Sarah Sneesby! As an actor, I have always wanted to hear a director say that, to admit that I- the actor- living with the part day in and day out, focusing on only that life, know the character better. And as a director, I try my best, though I sometimes fail, in remembering this all-important fact. I know the story, but the actor must be an expert in their character. And my actors need to know. I must remind them. It’s exciting to know that there is another director that knows this, that preaches this, that practices this, and continues to explore the possibilities this affords for all involved. We won't always get it right, but that’s okay.
“Fail. Fail big and fail hard. Because sometimes the ‘No’s are more informative than the ‘Yes's.” Sneesby says.
It is clear to me that Sneesby knows her stuff. She’s referencing these directors and critics, theorists and writers, and professors that have written and spoken on all of these complex ideas and practices. She’s giving me recommendations of things to read and things to check out. I am totally inspired by everything she is saying, and has me excited, talking about those moments when I used to be less afraid to fail. And I can feel the frustration of the last few years give way to a little bit of hopeful excitement. Because I don’t have the answers, and that’s okay.
“No one has all the answers, and that’s the beautiful thing. If someone had all the answers, then we wouldn’t need art,” Sneesby tells me, “ and the whole point of art is a bunch of people getting into the room and working together to try and find a possible answer. And present that to the audience, and know that another group of 20 people could look at the same work, with the same prompt, and come up with a completely different answer, and that’s- that’s what’s beautiful.”
Wow. Just- wow. Read that again! I did. When sitting down to write I re-listened to this quote on my voice recording app again and again. She’s right. This is a beautiful thing. This big question that we are all struggling to answer and the vulnerable experience of sharing with no shame or pretense our honest attempt that we will never know whether or not we answered correctly. Being able to stand in front of a bunch of people and say “I don’t know, maybe this?” This is why I fell in love with art in the first place. But at some point, the questions became overwhelming, and for all of us in the Age of Covid, the overwhelming questions started growing exponentially, and we couldn’t keep up. Sneesby’s answer? Redefining the rehearsal room. Granted, this brings in even more questions, but Sneesby fearlessly goes into the fray. Perhaps asking the questions isn’t such a bad thing.
“I think one of the brilliant things is that by being forced to step away from the physical rehearsal rooms for a period of time, it allowed us to take a critical look at the rehearsal room practices like body autonomy and retraining your brain all those years where you were told you must say ‘yes and’ and discovering that ‘no’ is a perfectly acceptable answer.” Sneesby is speaking my language.
“You can even say ‘no but’,” she says, saying it doesn’t always have to be a hard no, “sometimes it needs to be a hard no for safety, but sometimes it’s just a redirect.”
This right here. A redirection. For an industry with so many directors, we seem to avoid the redirect- even if it makes for a better performance and a more quality experience for all involved. Why are we so stuck in the toxic cycle that makes this a recipe for quick and constant burnout? With Covid raging on, we’ve started to wake up and see that maybe there is a better way. As I’ve been ruminating on this with Sneesby, she gets up to chase her kid across the room. Her kid was eager to escape and follow a newly made friend out the door. When she comes back, Sneesby comments that as artists, it’s our job to study life. It’s our job to live life, and if theatre is hindering our living life, there is something wrong.
“Our job is to show the human condition and to show empathy and to transform people’s brains and to have them think about stuff, and if we are not taking care of ourselves and our tribe of theatre practitioners, and if we are telling them that the show is more important than their health and their family…then we have no right telling stories about the importance of the human condition.”
I’m telling you right now, Sneesby is right. Sneesby proves to be right about a lot of things.
“As actors, our job is to embody other people and other stories, and if we don’t even know how to embody ourselves, how can we embody somebody else?” If we aren’t given a chance to live our lives and get in touch with ourselves, our performance suffers. Theatre institutions that choose to adhere to the outdated and toxic ways of before are shooting themselves in the foot. It is clear to me that Sneesby is not one of these people, and I am impressed to see how she is shifting the narrative and changing the status quo: especially for mothers.
If Covid has taught us anything, it’s that parents are left out of the loop, and this is especially true in the workforce. The wage gap between men and women is becoming smaller, but the gap between childless working women and working mothers has grown to be bigger than the gap between men and women. Parental leave is not nearly enough for these working parents, and we are putting mothers in a position to have to choose between their dreams and their child. This is an unfair choice. How do we become better? And how does the theatre world specifically right this wrong? Sneesby says we need to be truthful and transparent about expectations. Be honest, be truthful, be better. And consider the role of the artist in your offer.
“I’ve said no to jobs that say we can pay you $25 an hour and that’s the most we can pay you, and I’m like but childcare is $15 an hour. You don’t have a space for my child,” Sneesby shares, “So looking at that there are plenty of good opportunities that I have to say no to because I would be paying money, or I would be barely breaking even, and time is precious when you have a small child. Week to week, month to month, they make so many new discoveries. I can’t afford as a mom to agree to miss out on some of those opportunities for a net profit of $5 an hour.”
“ A lot of community theaters, if they really thought about it, within their basis, within their network, could probably find a bunch of parent volunteers who could agree to come to rehearsal one night a week, and watch people’s kids in the green room or lobby while parents rehearsed, or could look at how they do rehearsal schedules and instead of doing all calls actually plan out scenes and times and release parents by nine o clock so that they can get home before ten.” Sneesby then launches into a beautiful story about a professional actor, a friend of hers, who was able to play in an equity theatre and bring her newborn to rehearsal. They made accommodations for her to chase her dreams and be a mom. They made it a point to accommodate her because they wanted her.
“There’s a lot of that missing..you’re thinking about the cost, you’re not necessarily thinking about the extra value that you get by hiring mothers who have a different perspective….bringing in professionals who are also parents. It requires you to maintain a work-life balance for everybody because you have people who are willing to say ‘ no I won't sacrifice this for the sake of art…I think a lot of times we get stuck, and sometimes the answer is we need to table that for the night.”
These are the things that will improve the quality of our art, help us avoid burnout, and how we will continue to become inspired by the life around us we allow ourselves to live. This is part of redefining the rehearsal room.
“I’d love to see more grants for theatres and for young small production houses to provide childcare for actors. I’d love to be reached out by a company that says ‘hey we want you to direct and we know you have a kid so here are our options’ without me feeling like I have to like, sort of say yes to the job and then say ‘but did you know…is there a way…is it possible…’ so many of the companies..like, you’ve seen me, you know I have a kid, so if you could just be upfront and say here is what we can pay you, no your child can’t come to rehearsal with you,’ that makes it really easy for me to decide really fast is this opportunity with it or not.”
It’s all about managing expectations for Sneesby. Not everybody is going to assume they are giving their life over. Sneesby doesn’t think folks need to be giving their life over.
“We are at an age where we can’t be demanding that of people, and I hope that if this pandemic does anything good for the arts, I pray that it is that directors and companies have been taking the time to look at their code of conduct, look at their rehearsal room practices, to figure out how to integrate intimacy support and really solidify how to have a healthy rehearsal room.”
Sneesby is making sure that is a possibility in her rehearsal room, and providing childcare is a great step in the right direction. She hopes to see more of it as time goes on, and more of a general consideration of how finite and precious time is, and how that time should be spent with our loved ones.
“I pray that everyone across the board have spent enough time with their family and their loved ones that they remember that they are always important and that its not just one person saying no I can’t, I have a family thing bu that it’s every person saying it. When we all understand that family has to come first…that I think we will see radical beneficial change in our industry.”
Sarah Sneesby starts her rehearsals this month for her production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Performances will be April 29th to May 7th , 2022. For tickets, visit the MATCH website: https://matchouston.org/events/2022/macbeth
Sarah Sneesby also teaches classes and workshops. To book Sarah, or to find information about tickets for her production of Macbeth, visit her website at https://www.sarahsneesby.com/